Iran begins to fuel its first nuclear power station - but what happens next? Photo: IIPA via Getty Images
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John Simpson: The Iran deal won’t make the world much safer

It has been hard, over the years, to explain to western readers and viewers the deep contradictions of Iran.

After the Vienna agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme was announced, Valiasr Avenue, the long, snaking road that brings traffic southwards and downhill from the middle-class suburbs of northern Tehran to the city centre, was blocked until 2am. Excited, relieved and optimistic, people piled into their cars and headed out to celebrate, hooting their horns, singing and chanting. For Barack Obama and the western leaders, the agreement seems to offer a new start after 36 confrontational years. But for millions of middle-class people in northern Tehran, it promises something even more enticing: the chance to weaken the control that the religious conservatives have maintained over everyday life since 1979.

It has been hard, over the years, to explain to western readers and viewers the deep contradictions of Iran, one of the world’s least-reported-on major countries. The problem is that we think we know what the Islamic Republic is all about. We see the pictures of black-robed demonstrators in the streets denouncing the west and all its works. We recall the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his unshaven face and simian eyes, and think that he speaks for an entire nation of extremists. We assume, therefore, that Iran’s nuclear programme is intended to wipe out Israel and threaten western interests. And, as a result, we get Iran wrong every time.

The reality is that it is a highly complex political society – too complex for its own good – in which, for nearly 40 years, the old conservative revolutionaries have battled against the instinctively pro-western, relatively liberal instincts of a clear majority of its people. Even now, the conservatives manage to keep a grip on society through the structure of the state, which gives the unelected religious leader more authority than the elected president, and through the system of religious policing, which forces everyone to toe the line.

Every time the liberal section of society gets the chance to celebrate a victory over the conservatives, it does so in style – hence the parade of honking vehicles up and down Valiasr Avenue on 14 July. For the people leaning out of the windows and waving pictures of their foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led the negotiations to their successful conclusion, the agreement signals an end to sanctions and confrontation with the west. No wonder Iran’s conservatives are nervous about the deal. It probably ensures that the markedly liberal president, Hassan Rowhani, will be re-elected in 2017; and it will make Iranian society more “westoxicated” (an old revolutionary term) and even harder to control.

Will it prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons? The agreement doesn’t, on the face of it, seem particularly watertight, so Iran will likely be able to get around it if it wants. Yet there has never been any serious indication that Iran – even the Iran of the conservatives – wants nuclear weapons. What it seeks is the status that generating energy by nuclear means seems to confer; for the most part (and aside from the terrorist attacks it has carried out), Iran has been relatively timid in international affairs.

It is a country with great imperial pretensions and it feels that British and American machinations have historically prevented it from exercising real power in the region. What power it has is exercised through the Shia nexus, linking it with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad government in Syria, the Shia parties in Iraq and Shia groups in the Gulf. Iran is not and cannot be an existential threat to Israel but it can be a major diplomatic and military nuisance – hence the bitter condemnation of the Vienna deal by Binyamin Netanyahu.

Hence, too, the fears of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf rulers. The old system, in which the US kept the Middle East under control through military, political and economic links, is just about finished. The ground is shifting under everyone’s feet, so that in their different ways both Saudi Arabia and Israel are now out in the cold and Shia Islam is in the ascendant. A new alliance with Sunni Islam is up for grabs.

In Iran, the big winner after the deal is President Rowhani. He is affable, moderate and calm and has managed to stabilise the country after the violent ups and downs of the Ahmadinejad years. Any reformist leader can rely on roughly two-thirds of the electorate for support but the complexities of the Iranian constitution and the wiles of the politicians have often shackled the reformists’ powers. Now, however, the wave of prosperity that ought to follow the lifting of sanctions should strengthen Rowhani greatly. Will he be able to convert this into new political powers?

For those of us in the west, there are immediate, practical advantages. Iran’s oil will be back on the open market and should drive the price of oil down to $50 or maybe even lower: a big economic benefit. Whatever we may think of Iran, relying on prejudice and the television pictures of angry crowds, the reality is that the country is a sophisticated society that can once again play the pivotal role it did under the shah – though, one hopes, with a bit more common sense.

Is the world safer now? Not particularly, if only because the threat from Iran was mostly exaggerated out of proportion by Israel and the American right. Yet it will be a differently dangerous place. Sanctions, which are an unpleasant and lazy way of exercising power, have proven their effect; so has working with Russia instead of against it. The Vienna agreement will bring nothing good for Isis and it will be easier to co-ordinate a western/Shia campaign against it. The great anxiety now is felt by Saudi Arabia. What does it do and where does it go? After all the years of worrying about Iran, maybe we should start worrying about the Saudis instead? 

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.